Bread and Puppet Theater
nytheatre.com review by Maggie Cino
December 1, 2006
How could something so right also be so very wrong? This question spun through my head as I walked out of Bread and Puppet's latest offering, The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists. Unfortunately, I wasn't asking that question about the war in Iraq, the current administration, or popular culture, all topics that the piece tackles with great energy. No, I was asking that question about the show itself.
Let's start with what's right. First, it is gorgeous, both visually and musically. At the very beginning a lone violin plays and the heaps of white sheets on the ground begin to tremble. Slowly the heaps rise and each becomes a white deer, until there is a herd of white deer. That's only the beginning of an hour's worth of lyrical images, imaginative stagecraft, and puppets of all kinds. There are frogs and crinkly bulldogs and beautiful black and white cardboard cutouts of people, skeletons, and gods and large drawings that bring to mind Marc Chagall and William Blake. There are main actors who play everything from the Master of Ceremonies to Death, but the white costumed chorus is the star. This group of perhaps thirty people is a genuine chorus in the Greek sense of the word, a group of people acting as a single character (in this case, the population of America). They also operate puppets, dance, and create the soundscape by chanting, singing, humming, whistling, or crinking newspapers in rhythm. They are beautifully coordinated and the heart and soul of the show.
I have been avoiding calling the piece a play, and that's because it really isn't a drama. There is no story, no characters you are meant to identify with, and no catharsis. It is strictly a polemic done in beautiful images. The problem is that the group has very little to offer the dialogue about the current situation in Iraq, and what they do have to say is done in a tone so defensive and condescending that even I, who have attended more anti-war protests than I care to count, was ready to campaign for George W. Bush's third term. For example, there is a scene where they show a recruitment center, and the violin is playing "The Ants Go Marching In" as the chorus one by one signs up to fight in the army, suggesting that only victims of brainwashing would sign up to go to war. Throughout the show the chorus repeats a chant: "What do we want? NOTHING! What do we have? EVERYTHING! What do we need? VICTORY!" This might have been thought provoking a few years ago, but today, with support for the war at an all time low, Rumsfeld on his way out, and senior administration officials saying that the war is essentially lost, these cries seem shallow and dated; meanwhile, the play does not talk about many of the terrible things that are still happening in the world. And again, because it is more of a presentation than a play, there is no dramatic journey to make the rhetoric palatable.
The evening closes with the audience coming down to eat delicious bread and aioli, turning the performance into a community event. They are the Bread and Puppet Theater, and well, two out of three ain't bad.